Would encouraging more students to retake the SAT narrow college-enrollment gaps?

Interesting factoid: 54 percent of students who take the SAT retake it at least once. I was one of them back in the day, hoping that I could muster a high enough score to see my way into my number-one college pick. It didn’t happen. Mind you, I did score higher the second time, just not high enough.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Many young people see higher scores on college entrance exams the second time around, as evidenced by a new National Bureau of Economic Research study conducted by Joshua Goodman, Oded Gurantz, and Jonathan Smith.

They examine the impact of retaking college entrance exams, specifically the SAT, on test scores and college enrollment. They gather student-level data from the College Board—specifically, 12 million students from the high school classes of 2006–14 who had valid scores on all three sections of the SAT and first took it by November of their senior year and thus had time to retake it prior to graduating. They match SAT data with college application and enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Because SAT retakers are likely to differ from non-retakers along any number of dimensions, analysts needed an “exogenous source of variation” that affects retaking but is not related to students’ unobserved characteristics. To their credit, they developed a clever study design that borrows from the behavioral economics literature. The latter demonstrates that individuals focus disproportionately on the leftmost digits of numbers when making decisions, including when they buy goods like cars and houses. For instance, homebuyers may find a price tag of $699,999 more palatable than $700,000.

Prior related research has also shown that students scoring just below multiples of one hundred tend to retake the SAT at higher rates than those scoring right at or above various round-number thresholds. Given that students scoring just below and above a given level are otherwise nearly identical, Goodman et al. use these round number cutoffs to estimate the causal impact of retaking the SAT on SAT scores and college enrollment.

Of import to this study, nearly 75 percent of four-year colleges that use SAT scores in the admissions process publicly claim to consider only a student’s maximum score, which means that retaking only improves students’ chances of being admitted by making their application more competitive. Descriptive statistics also show that females are 3 percentage points more likely to retake than males and Asian American students are 12 percentage points more likely to retake than white students.

The key finding is that retaking the SAT once improves students’ scores by nearly 0.3 standard deviations, which equates to 90 points on a 2400 point scale. For students who initially score in the lower half of the SAT distribution, retaking once boosts scores by nearly 0.4 SD (or 120 points on a 2400 point scale).

The score increases are large enough to drive big improvements in college enrollment, too. On average, retaking increases the probability of a student enrolling in a four-year college by 13 percentage points, largely because students choose not to enroll in two-year colleges instead. Retaking also causes students to enroll in colleges with historically higher degree completion rates than they would otherwise (partly because four-year colleges have higher rates). These impacts are driven mostly by lower-scoring, low-income, and minority students. Higher-scoring students see smaller gains, in part because of ceiling effects. Finally, they estimate that eliminating disparities in retake rates between low- and high-income students could close up to 20 percent of the four-year college-enrollment gap by income.

One of the authors’ chief recommendations is to encourage students to take their first SAT test earlier to leave more time for another bite of the apple. A second is to make it more widely known that retakes are allowed, since some students may be unaware.

In the end, my higher retake score helped to get me “waitlisted” until the second semester at my first-choice college. I chose not to transfer because life at my plan-B school was pretty good after all.

May all retakers be so fortunate.

SOURCE: Joshua Goodman et al., “Take Two! SAT Retaking and College Enrollment Gaps,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2018).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.